By Staff Reporter

Internet access is pivotal to Africa’s economic and social transformation making it vital for governments to invest in digital technologies, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Acting Executive Secretary, Antonio Pedro, has urged

“Digitalisation is key to achieving the SDGs and Agenda 2063 and achieving that requires the contribution of all stakeholders,” said Mr. Pedro, speaking at a High-Level Leaders Session on Universal, Affordable and Meaningful Connectivity, at the opening of the Internet Governance Forum 2022 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Mr. Pedro underscored the importance of partnerships and collaboration in boosting digital connectivity in Africa which is on the path of economic transformation with the operationalisation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

He reiterated that the ECA is using its 3 core functions of Think tank, Convening and Operational to demystify the conversation about the internet and its role in society.

“We have also identified opportunities for all the stakeholders to participate, for example, we are helping our member states to formulate national AfCFTA strategies,” he said, adding that, “The AfCFTA is deemed as the African Marshall Plan and it will create a market for 1.5 billion people where with no tariffs and other barrier. It will enable the emergence of small and medium enterprises and regional value chains which require digitalization as a means to enabling trade.”

The UN official said the African Union Commissions’ Digital Transformation Strategy was an excellent framework for prioritizing digital infrastructure and accessibility as a prerequisite to achieving digital transformation and prosperity in line with Agenda 2063. Already the ECA is promoting broadband expansion efforts across member states which will have substantial impact on regional cooperation and integration in Africa.

The ECA is playing a leading role in regional consultations and in the development of e-strategies that address communication policy, financing and regulatory issues in a way that promotes harmonization and support cross-border trade under the AfCFTA.

Describing investment in basic digital skills as a priority for many African countries to improve participation of citizens in their local digital ecosystem, Mr. Pedros said the ECA was supporting the establishment of the first Artificial Intelligence (AI) research center in Congo Brazzaville, the African STEAM center in Rwanda and the Cyber security center in Togo.

To resolve the Gender Digital Divide, ECA has been conducting coding camps for girls and young women under the “Connected African Girls” initiative. These camps provide girls and young women with the knowledge, tools, and platforms they need to develop as entrepreneurs, innovators, and technology leaders. This initiative has now equipped over 25,000 girls across the continent with various essential ICT skills.

Speaking at the High Level Leaders session, Paul Scully, Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, United Kingdom, highlighted the multi stakeholder model is crucial to producing effective collaborative solutions to complex problems like digital connectivity.

“To achieve our ambition all stakeholders need to work together and in this regard we should not view actors as having narrow assigned roles and responsibilities…We do not see government, the private sector and civil society working in silos but rather cooperating to deliver on joint ambitions,” said Mr. Scully, citing that the British government has established the international  TechHub network through the Digital access programme which catalyzes effective, affordable and secure digital access for excluded and underserved populations in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

Paula Ingabire – Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Rwanda, told participants that the right legal and regulatory reforms necessary to ensure meaningful connectivity and accessibility should be in place.

“We need to look at universal access policies and not just access but also ensuring that affordability is achieved as we drive broadband connectivity for all and ensure that no one is left behind,” Ms. Ingabire said.

Kojo Boakye, Director of Public Policy Africa and the Middle East, Meta, concurred stating that creating meaningful connectivity is about governments creating the policy regulatory framework for the private sector to invest in. While the civil society organizations should be watchdogs and inform the regions where investment should go.

“Government should certainly set the agenda and policy regulatory environment conducive to increasing access and affordability… When done well you have great projects like 2Africa, Meta project connecting 33 countries in Africa and Middle East and which will bring more capacity than all cables at this point in time,” Mr. Boakey explained.

Underscoring the importance of digital access and critical role of the IGF as a platform for experience exchange and promoting good practices, Junhua Li , United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said the  IGF can accelerable universal connectivity by creating new partnerships and generating new ideas.

“Advancement in technologies must ultimately serve wider role of sustainable development and leave no one behind,” said Mr. Li.

How multi stakeholder partnerships contribute to universal affordable and meaningful connectivity in Africa was a key question tackled by the High-Level Leadership session. Participants noted that while connectivity was important, it was expensive in terms of infrastructure.

“We need the cooperation of governments, pension funds, and private sector in the deployment of connectivity and we need to make sure the funding and infrastructure roll out exactly to those places and communities which need it,” said Lise Fuhr, Director-General,  European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association, stressing that investors need clarity and certainty that they are making a good investment.

“Connectivity needs to be meaningful and affordable, but we cannot risk undue government interference. We cannot risk network shutdown and we cannot have top-down mandating of protocols,” Ms. Fuhr warned adding that, “We reject any attempt to fragment the internet with top-down protocols. It is bad for democracy; it is bad for investment and also bad for achieving universal connectivity.

However, providing affordable and meaningful connectivity across diverse population groups especially in rural areas has huge challenges such as unstable connectivity, lack of devices, connection applications and education, said Nii Narku Quaynor, Chairman, Ghana Dot Com.

“Technology security is similar to food security,” Mr. Quaynor said, noting that as the internet penetration crosses 50 percent in Africa instead of internet shutdowns there should be continuous internet. This would be in line with the objectives of the Digital Transformation strategy for Africa that by 2030 all access devices are manufactured in Africa and 30 percent of information resourcing and services are developed and hosted in Africa.